The Huseins and Their Historic Mansions in the Fort, Galle

Juliet Coombe, in Daily News, 1 December 2017,where the title runsFragments of the past”

“New things you can replace. Old things are irreplaceable.” Such is the mentality that has underpinned the empire that is now the Historical Mansion, right through from the inventor of the museum, Hussain senior, who has passed the museum onto his eldest son Kamal who now runs it, along with the arcade, gem making workshop in the central courtyard and the fabulous antiques gallery with filigree jewellery that is hundreds of years old. Newness is not important to Kamal, he simply wants to preserve what his father collected so that future generations can understand and appreciate the lives that were lived without electricity hence the notches in the walls for candles and if you wanted water you had to draw it from the central courtyard well.

 

“New things you can replace. Old things are irreplaceable.” Such is the mentality that has underpinned the empire that is now the Historical Mansion, right through from the inventor of the museum, Hussain senior, who has passed the museum onto his eldest son Kamal who now runs it, along with the arcade, gem making workshop in the central courtyard and the fabulous antiques gallery with filigree jewellery that is hundreds of years old. Newness is not important to Kamal, he simply wants to preserve what his father collected so that future generations can understand and appreciate the lives that were lived without electricity hence the notches in the walls for candles and if you wanted water you had to draw it from the central courtyard well.

White colonial archways

The Dutch well that stands in the open courtyard is one of the few things that Hussain did not have to alter, it being one of the oldest and still functioning wells within the Fort. Kamal’s father was originally a gem merchant who collected antiques simply as a hobby. But he decided to set up the museum as a service to the country, a monument that could live forever, preserving his beloved collection and giving one a valuable snap shot of how we used to live our lives from the way we cooked to how broken China traded in this fascinating merchant city got a new life in his fathers home across the road.

You enter into this time capsule through an old wooden doorframe with a typical Dutch Style gable, underneath a gloriously colourful stained glass window to find yourself in a cool entrance hall framed by enormous white colonial archways. The museum has a specific route which you can follow round the building beginning with an array of ceramic plates, past an old gramophone complete with an interesting selection of records and even a small glass bottle labelled ‘Tsunami Sand, 2004’ forever preserved as a reminder of what the country experienced on that terrible day thirteen years ago. A lace maker and an old gem cutter sit side by side, displaying the talents that are so infamous around this area of Sri Lanka.

Kamal’s favourite part of the museum, however, is the old Sri Lankan kitchen at the back of the building, perfectly conserved the way it would have been many centuries ago, complete with an arched stone oven and small clay pots, the likes of which Kamal tells me, he would not have even found in his granny’s house!

That is the beauty of the Historical Mansion. Within it everyone can find something that reminds them of their history or even learn something about it that they never knew before. The VOC slab is the oldest object in the museum-they found it when they were re-constructing the Old Dutch well in the courtyard. Like Antoni Gaudi the family love putting the fragmented colonial and trading history together and in some cases turning them into new ways of seeing something as simple as a broken tea cup.

The historic mansions

I learn how artist Antoni Gaudi had only one romantic love in this world and she loved him not, so he devoted his life to the One above and created some of the most breathtaking and unique architecture the world has ever seen. When someone buys a china pot or plate they dream of having it on show in their drawing room or dining room and they enliven it with a story around its history or how they obtained it but when it meets with some slow motion, fumbling, shattering accident it is wholly broken along with the dream and the story. Thus was the fate of many a china vase on its voyage across the high seas to Sri Lanka, with storm force winds throwing the old seadogs and their crafts about like matchsticks, forever recreating that timeless vision of furniture sliding from wall to wall and possessions spilling out of cupboards with each heave and roll.

Sri Lankans as you will discover walking around the old city of Galle Fort are an ingenious and clever nation spawned from hybrids of incredibly deft and diligent indigenous tribes and pioneering immigrants of many cultures and people that have come and gone in its great trading history of the last half millennium. Never missing an opportunity to recycle and reuse the seemingly useless, with ingenuity, the people would take ships’ ballasts, in the form of coral and erect the walls of their houses with it. The ballast would weigh the ship down enough for it not to roll over in a storm and in turn would create space for loading up various spoils taken from Sri Lanka. Similarly, the creator of the historic mansions used the broken china that had to be offloaded for creating beautiful patterned mosaics in half moon designs around doorways in his central courtyard. Broken China designs can be found on walls, in temples and on floors, giving new life to each piece and an opportunity to beautify architecture in a wonderful and intricate way. Not only that, the embedding of these colonial broken pieces helps us today, in some cases date from which period the house was built, as with each colonial nation, different broken pieces would arrive, creating a time lock for keen historians.

Gaudi’s mosaics are amongst the most beautiful in the world as he has a particularly close connection with the earth and nature. This connection can be seen in his absolutely stunning building of the Sagradia Familia where the pillars and arches look like a surreal forest growing within the fabric of the edifice, looking like a cathedral of enveloping trees. His other architectural wonders include many amazing mosaics and his unique gift for making buildings look like they have literally grown, like plants, out of the ground and are in full bloom with incredible arrays of bright colours. So, too, are a number of temples and houses built in Sri Lanka that make use of these ornate broken china mementos of another age, creating new dreams from old broken ones.

 

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Filed under British colonialism, commoditification, cultural transmission, economic processes, heritage, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, Muslims in Lanka, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, travelogue, unusual people, world affairs

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